book: The Swimmer (2013; trans 2015 Elizabeth Clark Wessel) by Joakim Zander

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The publisher seems keen to make us believe that this novel represents the emergence of a new John Le Carré or Graham Greene. Their copywriters should read a bit more Le Carré or Greene before making such comparisons, because they’re not doing Joakim Zander any favors. You won’t find in The Swimmer any of the philosophical subtexts you’d expect to encounter in a Greene “entertainment” and you certainly won’t find that slow-moving, intricately layered creepiness/paranoia that marks the best of Le Carré.

What you’ll find instead — and this is what The Swimmer should be lauded to the skies for — is a slam-bam, action-packed thriller that’s so beautifully put together (and so superbly translated, by Elizabeth Clark Wessel) that the book practically reads itself, with the sole task of the reader being to cling on by the fingernails. In this context you might not regard The Swimmer as great art, but you’d be wrong not to recognize it as great craft, and for the average reader — i.e., moi — that’s if anything Continue reading

Nightmare in the Sun (1965)

US / 79 minutes / color / Afilmco, Zodiac Dir & Pr: Marc Lawrence Scr: Ted Thomas, Fanya Lawrence Story: Marc Lawrence, George Fass Cine: Stanley Cortez Cast: John Derek, Aldo Ray, Arthur O’Connell, Ursula Andress, Sammy Davis Jr., Allyn Joslyn, Keenan Wynn, George Tobias, John Marley, Lurene Tuttle, Robert Duvall, Richard Jaeckel, Chick Chandler, Bill Challee (i.e., William Challee), Michael Petit (i.e., Michel Petit), James Waters, John Sebastian.

An oddball but interesting piece of rural noir that has languished in obscurity for a long while. There was a VHS release a couple of decades ago, but it seems to have had a very restricted distribution. Even so, it seems to be the only extant source for the movie.

It’d be nice to describe the obscurity as undeserved, but I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. If you go into the movie expecting it to obey the normal rules of narrative then you’re likely to be disappointed: judged in that context it’s fairly mediocre. If you’re happy simply to let Nightmare in the Sun take you wherever it chooses, then you may find it a more enjoyable viewing experience—if such a minor movie deserves such a pompous term. And it does, of course, have a pretty noteworthy cast.

John Derek as Steve

Thanks to a lift given him by a deaf trucker (Davis, in what must surely be the smallest role of his career), a hitchhiker called Steve (Derek) arrives in the small town of Calab, otherwise known as the butt end of nowhere. The friendly gas station proprietor, Hogan (Marley), informs him that the local sheriff don’t like him no hoboes, and advises him to get out of town while the going’s good.

Ursula Andress as Marsha

Steve is soon picked up by Marsha Wilson (Andress, whose marriage to Derek was by this time effectively over), ostentatiously unfaithful much younger wife of local bigshot and boozer Sam Wilson (O’Connell). She takes Steve back to the ranch and, enlisting the help of a swimming pool, seduces him with startling ease, bearing in mind how much he Continue reading

book: Once on a Moonless Night (2007; trans 2009 Adriana Hunter) by Dai Sijie

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In the aftermath of China’s Cultural Revolution a young French student (our anonymous narrator) is studying in Peking/Beijing when she falls in love with a local greengrocer, Tumchooq. But this isn’t any old greengrocer: he’s the estranged son of the French linguist Paul d’Ampere, the first person to “crack” the dead language Tumchooq, for which his son was named. The language was initially known to modern scholarship only through a partial sutra written on a torn scroll that played a part in the lives of both of China’s “last emperors” and some of their predecessors.

This gives Tumchooq (the man) the excuse to Continue reading

book: The Potter’s Field (2008; trans 2011 Stephen Sartarelli) by Andrea Camilleri

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I’ve read perhaps half a dozen of Camilleri’s Montalbano novels before and generally enjoyed them, but for much of the time while reading this one I felt as if the author was rather doing things by numbers. Yes, Montalbano’s dimwit junior Catarella mangles the language and makes a fool of himself, complete with pratfall. Yes, a media figure unfairly lambasts Montalbano and gets his comeuppance. Yes, there’s a good measure of clowning around. The trouble was that, while much of this was going on, I was rolling my eyes and wishing Camilleri would get a move on with the actual, you know, story.

The owner of a field of clay that’s “harvested” for sale to potters discovers someone’s dumped on his property a big black plastic filled with the bits of a dismembered human body — thirty bits, to be precise. That figure reminds Montalbano of the tale of Judas and his pieces of silver, as does the fact that Continue reading

The Twelve Shorts of Christmas #12: Night of the Slasher (2015)

US / 11 minutes / color / We Make Movies Dir & Scr: Shant Hamassian Pr: Adam Lesar, Eve Constance, Shant Hamassian Cine: Eli Tahan Cast: Lily Berlina, Scott Javore, Adam Lesar, David Swann, Eve Constance.

A teenager, Jenelle (Berlina), has a score to settle with a psycho. We read between the lines that the scar on her neck is a souvenir of a previous encounter with this unnamed killer, whom we’ll call the Slasher.

Lily Berlina as Jenelle

One night while Mom (Constance) and Dad (Swann) are out, she puts her plan into action. She has compiled a checklist of “Horror Movie Sins” that beautiful young blondes should commit if they want to lure psychos: Dance Half Naked, Drink Beer, Do Drugs, Have Sex. She does the first of these in the company of Continue reading

book: When It Grows Dark (2016; trans 2017 Anne Bruce) by Jorn Lier Horst

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A prequel to a series of Norwegian police procedurals that I have not read.

Thirty-three years ago, in 1983, series protagonist William Wisting is just a humble patrol cop with a young wife, infant twins and too many bills. Trying to catch a habitual car thief, he and his partner make a discovery that may help in the solution to a series of ram raids on banks’ night safes. However, before he can do more than this he’s shoved to the sidelines to let the big boys tackle the case. So Wisting instead, with the encouragement of his boss, turns his attention to the puzzle of a recently discovered abandoned vintage car. Left decades ago in a ramshackle barn, the car has now been found to have bullet holes in its chassis. How did it come to be there, and what was the crime of which the bullet holes are now the solitary trace?

Needless to say, Continue reading

The Twelve Shorts of Christmas #11: He Took His Skin Off for Me (2014)

UK / 11 minutes / color / LFS, Fruit Tree Media, Cungkeel Dir: Ben Aston Pr: Fiona Lamptey Scr: Maria Hummer, Ben Aston Story: “He Took His Skin Off for Me” (2013 Devil’s Lake) by Maria Hummer Cine: Yiannis Manolopoulos Cast: Sebastian Armesto, Anna Maguire, Oli Fenton, Sarah Barker, Danyèle Seignoret, Stuart Thompson, Gary “Stretch” Turner, Olivia Furber.

A beautifully executed, visually vivid short whose affect is hard to forget, perhaps because of the juxtaposition of the tranquility of the narration (by Maguire) with the images on screen—not that those are violent or graphic in any way (far from it) but simply because we tend to recoil at the sight of the skinned man. This instinctive reaction is foregrounded early on when we’re presented with the sight of another piece of stripped flesh, a slab of Continue reading

The Twelve Shorts of Christmas #10: The Detectress (1919)

US / ~21 minutes / bw silent / Bull’s Eye, Reelcraft Dir: Gale Henry, Bruno C. Becker Cast: Gale Henry, Milbourne Moranti (i.e., Milburn Morante), Hap H. Ward, Eddie Baker, Richard C. Currier.

One of the few surviving movies made by a comedienne who was in her day enormously popular—she has sometimes been regarded as the inspiration for the animated character Olive Oyl—this is a slapstick parody of the kind of cops’n’robbers one-reelers that were at the time frequent contributors to a night out at the movies. Setting aside the racial stereotyping, which isn’t really malicious but nonetheless leaves an extremely unsavory taste in the mouth—all Chinese men are untrustworthy scoundrels and their food is vile—The Detectress can still be enjoyed today for its inventiveness and its knockabout farce.

Gale Henry as Lizzie

An elderly inventor (unknown actor)—“This antique old fossil,” as the intertitle describes him—has made an astonishing breakthrough: spectacles to enable eaters to determine the ingredients of a chop suey placed in front of them. His formula is stolen by the Chinese pickpocket Jip Yu (Baker) who, chased by a cop, puts it into what he thinks is a cunning hiding place but which is in fact Continue reading

The Twelve Shorts of Christmas #9: L’Amore Non Ha Confini (1998)

Italy / 15 minutes / color / Indigo Dir & Scr: Paolo Sorrentino Pr: Nicola Giuliano Cine: Pasquale Mari Cast: Gianni Ferreri, Gaetano Amato, Giovanni Esposito, Caterina De Regibus (i.e., Caterina Deregibus), Luigi Petrucci.

Gianni Ferreri as Beato

A piece of Mafia-related surrealism that’s peculiarly difficult to say anything about precisely because it is surrealistic.

It starts out mundanely enough (so to speak) by following besuited hitman Beato Trepiedi (Ferreri) around his neighborhood in Licola, an area in Naples province, Italy; the only thing that seems odd is that, while Beato fires his guns at the slightest provocation—or none at all—he never seems to hit anything that matters.

He’s summoned to a meeting with Continue reading

The Twelve Shorts of Christmas #8: The Attachment (2003)

US / 18 minutes / color / Anics Productions Dir & Pr & Scr: Alex Nicoll Cine: Brandon Trost Cast: Sean Gray, René Moranno, Sean Riedy, Vanessa Vander Pluym, Heather Toonen, Dai Ngyuyen, Alex Nicoll.

René Moranno (left) as Scott and Sean Gray as Ryan

Normal-seeming creep Ryan Morris (Gray) and psycho-seeming creep Mike (Riedy) run a porn website—a porn website with the sickening twist that the images displayed are of women raped under the influence of rohypnol and the like. Some of the images are sent in by readers, others are “harvested” by Ryan and Mike themselves.

Tonight Ryan hopes to add a woman he recently met, Lisa (Toonen), to the site, but she’s not answering her phone.

His visiting friend Scott (Moranno), sickened by what he sees on screen but believing Ryan’s bullshit that he’s merely the site’s technical manager, notices first that there’s an image on-screen of Samantha (Vander Pluym), whom he saw Ryan with recently, and then that Continue reading